Tag Archives: multimodality

Multimodality is Old News: The Incas and Khipu

I have been off the grid for a bit, but more importantly, I have been on vacation.

With some old and some new friends, I hiked the Inca Trail through the Andes mountains from outside Cusco, Peru to the oft-photographed Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu and its location were impressive—as expected. The trek, however, which covered about 25 miles of elevation gains of up to 13,000 feet at Dead Woman’s Pass and losses and gains again across several passes, was the personally satisfying portion of the trip.

The following two photographs show a bit of the extent of this trek: The first, where we were going on Day 2, and the second from the other side while atop the next mountain range still on Day 2. We continued hiking that day.

While trekking we were led by Peruvian guides Marco and Roger, as well as hosted by 18 porters who packed and prepared all of our daily needs (amazing!). At each pass, Marco discussed Incan history with us (punctuating the tales with some great punchlines). At one particular pass, Marco impressed upon us the expanse of the Incan empire, which in the 1400s extended across several current South American countries and was the largest South American pre-Columbian empire. Food, supplies, building and expansion plans, astronomical predictions, and military commands were all transported across this terrain by chasquis (runner messengers) at a much quicker pace than we were keeping. (The trek had been run in 3:45 and we were taking four days!) Impressive as just that is, our guide said that at one point, the chasquis’ tongues had been cut off so that the secrets of the empire could not be shared. (I haven’t been able to corroborate this yet. If someone has a source, please let me know.)

So how did they do it? Without tongues, the only other reasonable alternative to expect was that these runners carried some type of text—a large scroll or a tiny printed words on coco leaf (implausible, but go with me). Well, we’d be wrong in such an assumption. Apparently, the largest pre-Columbian empire built stone cities with precision, expanded their reign across cultures, and managed their empire without a formal writing system.

As one of my students used to say, “Let’s let that percolate.”

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